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Differences Between “Shall” and “May “in English Grammar

“Shall” vs “May “in English Grammar

“Shall” and “may” are two modal auxiliary verbs that are used to express a future action. Both modal verbs indicate the chance of a possibility or probable action.

There are many differences between “shall” and “may,” usually in the realm of usage. “Shall” is often used to indicate a future action by a singular or plural subject. The modal verb can be used in first, second, and third persons.

In the first person, “shall” is used simply to indicate the future tense. This is applicable to both singular and plural subjects. However, when used in the second or third  person, it implies a promise, command, or compulsion. It also connotes the determination and inevitability of the action. “Shall” is also used in singular and plural subjects in both second and third person.

“May” is another modal verb that is used in the present tense. Its use is often in the second person and when the subject is singular in nature.

In terms of context, both “shall” and “may” are used in formal occasions.  Sometimes, they are also included in formal documents like legal papers.

“Shall” is also used in the context of offers, suggestions, invitations, or requests. In terms of a possibility, it connotes a definitive nature often developing into a need or necessity.

On the other hand, “may” is used for a grant or allowance of permission, an implied possibility, or the capability to perform an action or an obligation to function. The last occasion usually functions like “must” and “shall” in legal documents.

In addition, the term “shall” is considered as more intense or forceful in nature compared to “may.”
The past tense of “shall” is “should” while the past tense of “may” is “might.” Both terms also have their own counterparts or fellow verbs which are often confused when it comes to usage. “Shall” is usually confused with “will” while the usage of “may” is often interchanged with “can.”

Both “shall” and “may” can be used as part of the question. In the same manner, both words can be included in the answer with “shall” or “may” in the question.


  1. Both “shall” and “may” are modal verbs and are used in many contexts. Both terms express a future action and practice. The main difference between “shall” and “may” is their use in English grammar.
  2. Both “shall” and “may” are used in formal occasions and documents.
  3. The term “shall” is used in a future tense. It can be used with a  singular or plural number of subjects.  When used in the second and third person, the term implies a  conviction in terms of promises, commands, or compulsions. On the other hand, “may” is a term used in the present tense. More often, “may” is used with a singular number of the subject in the second person.
  4. Both “shall” and “may” function in different contexts. “Shall” is used in conveying offers, suggestions, and requests. Meanwhile, “may” is used for permission, showing an ability, and obligation (in legal situations).
  5. One common denominator is the use of both terms under the context of a possibility. “Shall” indicates a manifestation of possibilities while “may” demonstrates an implied possibility.
  6. Also, there is a note of obligation in the usage of both verbs. “Shall” expresses this when used with the second and third person (whether the subject is singular or plural). Meanwhile, “may” can have the meaning of obligation when used in a legal document.
  7. Both “shall” and “may” have their own counterparts or identical terms that are often confused. “Shall” is often paired with “will.” In contrast, “may” is often confused with “can.”
  8. Both “shall” and “may” have their own past variations. “Shall” is formed into “should” as its past tense. Meanwhile, “might” is the past version of “may.”

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  1. This was quite informative. Could you also give some examples ?

  2. Are the terms May and Shall limiting?


    You may
    1. Use money for repair,
    2. Use money for improvement,
    3. Use money for replacement.

    Does this use of may permit one to use the “money” for anything else they want or are they limited to these three uses? If may is changed for shall is it still limiting or not?

    At issue is in using may is permission open for anything a person wants or can they only do 1, 2 or 3.

  3. Shall I come in ?
    Is this sentence right or wrong plZz explain…Because I heard it no. Of time.

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